Search This Blog

Sunday, October 26, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 21: The Untold Story (1993)

Written by Kam-Fai Law and Wing-Kin Lau
Directed by Danny Lee and Herman Yau

Anthony Wong:  Wong Chi Hang
Danny Lee:  Officer Lee
Emily Kwan:  Bo

A little half-baked history lesson, for the people who either weren't around in 1993 or weren't cult movie fans around that time. Hong Kong cinema was the flavor of the month for about two and a half years for cult and B fans in America. Their action movies were amazing (and I'm glad that every so often there's talk of remaking The Killer by an American studio that goes exactly nowhere), Jackie Chan's films were required viewing for action, martial arts and slapstick fans and their horror movies were batshit fucking loco. They were all extreme (and not in that early 90s way, thank Cthulhu), as well, as if they were a band that started out turned up to eleven and then just getting faster and louder until they played all the notes that existed and set off a fireworks display during their encore song. This would be roughly in the decade before Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule by Britain; I'm sure some of the uncertainty and nervous tension in the air was alchemically transmuted into cinematic gold by the directors and actors.

And, of the movies that were being shipped out of Hong Kong to rabid white-dude cinephiles in America, the ones that started to develop reputations for complete berserk wonderfulness were the Category III movies. The Hong Kong ratings board had three categories that would be roughly equivalent to G, PG-13 and X. The first two ratings categories were for films considered innocuous enough for children (although Cat II meant it would be a good idea to have the parents accompany the wee tykes to the theater) and the third one was meant for adults only, although the films would not necessarily have any unsimulated sexual acts in them. (This doesn't mean that they wouldn't get crazy with simulated content, mind you--Eternal Evil of Asia has a scene were a woman has sex with a flying invisible ghost, which really just turns into naked miming from what I've heard.)

It's also worth mentioning that Cat III films were not necessarily thought of as disreputable in their home territory. Anthony Wong got the Best Actor trophy from the Hong Kong Film Awards for his performance in this film; generally American films that feature graphic murder scenes aren't the ones that win lots of little gold statues. Though, come to think of it, The Silence of the Lambs did sweep the four top awards in its year of release, plus Best Adapted Screenplay--normally I'm used to historical dramas or biographies winning those top prizes, not lurid true-crime stories. And I'm going to need to find some synonyms for "lurid" before this review is done, let me tell you.

The film opens with a flashback set several years before the main action, wherein two men are arguing after a game of mah jongg. The talks break down and the younger man wallops the older one with a chair, then slams his head into a wall several times, douses him with gasoline from a conveniently placed plastic jug (!) and sets him on goddamned fire. The next thing to get set on fire is the murderer's state ID card; he flees from Hong Kong to the island of Macau set sets up a new identity, using a buzzcut hairdo and big ugly glasses to change his appearance completely.

Meanwhile, much later, a woman is scooping up shellfish on a beach and depositing them in a plastic bucket. I think she's getting ingredients for a meal, but this is just the first of so many details in the film that puzzled me and made me wonder if I wasn't getting something because I didn't have the necessary background to understand it or if the movie was just incredibly odd. And, of course, both things could be true. At any rate, the woman scooping up molluscs has two sons with her, who are goofing around on the beach in the time-honored manner of semi-unsupervised children through all cultures and historical epochs. They find a half-buried plastic bag that's washed up on the beach and try to see what's in it; when their mom spots the severed forearms she drops the oyster bucket, scoops the kids up and runs off to call the police.

While the woman gives a statement to the police, a special investigation squad shows up led by Officer Lee (played by Danny Lee, of The Killer and Infra-Man; he's got a resume that's the Hong Kong equivalent of Donald Pleasence). He's in charge of four plainclothes officers--Bo (the butch chick), Bull (the testosterone case), Robert (the smarmy charmer) and a fourth guy with no real discernable personality. I didn't even get his name, come to think of it. Lee's performance as Lee (, in the future, when I say "Lee" in this review I'm referring to the character, not the actor) is one of those things that baffled me because I don't understand enough cultural background. He's high up in the Macau police force, but the movie's made in Hong Kong. Is he supposed to be a bumpkin, or just playing dumb? He comes across as a slightly exasperated sitcom father (and there's no doubt in my mind that the four cops who work under him are authentically stupid and lazy, each in their own way).

The Mope Squad has a spat about who's going to go look at the severed limbs. Bo loses the argument and almost her lunch when she examines the body parts. Bull tells Lee his theory--an illegal immigrant was fleeing China or Hong Kong for Macau and got eaten by sharks. Lee gently deflates the man by asking if sharks would put arms and legs in a bag. Bo tries to pick up the severed and rotting arm with a stick (and I'm just not sure how much this movie wants me to be thinking about the chain of evidence, but that can't be the right way to take severed appendages down to the station). Although Bo's the token woman on the team, all the men flinch just as much as she does when it comes time to take possession of the arms and legs.

Meanwhile, at a tiny restaurant, Wong Chi Hang is butchering a pig on the prep floor (OSHA, like the police chain of evidence, apparently does not exist in the world of this film). He's quite good at his job, and there's the value-added feature of him looking at the cashier all creepy-like while preparing the different cuts of pork. He hires a waiter / prep cook and tears up a letter that's been delivered for a man named Cheng Lam. Later on Chi Hang goes to talk to an attorney, trying to get ownership of the restaurant turned over to him. The lawyer tells him that he needs more paperwork; as of this moment, what Chi Hang wants to do isn't legal. Also, the previous owner, Cheng Lam, must be present for the transfer of ownership. Chi Hang leaves in a huff and his dogged insistence on not listening to the lawyer reminds me a bit of the dimwitted criminals in a lot of the Coen brothers' films.

Back at the police station, Officer Lee is trying with extremely limited success to get his squad to fingerprint the severed hands and also do a little bit of police work from time to time. He leaves with one of a succession of attractive women. Bo eventually goes to fingerprint the decomposing hand and does such a bad job that the evidence tech complains at her lack of talent. There's no results yet, and apparently the fingerprint matching is done by making a blown-up transparency of the print in question and physically sliding it over enlargements of all the fingerprints on file. I call myself a research badass (and I've got justification for doing that), but I'd run screaming for the exits if I had to manually check tens of thousands of fingerprints looking for a match.

Meanwhile, back at the restaurant, Wong Chi Hang is playing mah jongg with his employees and a couple other people. He's a big fat cheater, and goes into full-bore Bellowing Outrage mode when the prep cook calls him on it. He also goes to the lawyer again with Cheng Lam's ID card and a pile of money, but the lawyer won't take a bribe to process the paperwork for restaurant ownership. He also throws away more mail for Cheng Lam.

Speaking of mail, the police get a letter from Cheng Lam's brother, Cheng Yi, who lives in mainland China and hasn't heard from Lam in a while. Apparently Lam sent money back to his family every week from his restaurant but hasn't been doing that or staying in touch with them for a while and Yi is worried. Bo also gets information from the fingerprint guy--one usable print from the severed hand has been found, and points her towards a Mrs. Chan Li Chun, age sixty. Bo gets Li Chun's address but doesn't have time to check it out before Officer Lee asks her for a status report and gives her a gentle chiding for not looking at the place yet. The police scenes wouldn't be entirely out of place in an Andy Griffith-style show; the older, wiser cop gently guiding his goofy but well-intentioned subordinates towards wisdom and effectiveness.

Which contrasts amazingly with the next scene back at the restaurant. The waiter / prep cook guy mentions to Chi Hang that he saw his boss cheating at mah jongg. In a measured and appropriate response, Chi Hang murders the prep cook with a memo spike to the head and beating him to death with a heavy-duty soup ladle. There's a grotesquely funny scene where the killer tries to walk away from the body but it's gripping his trouser leg. Chi Hang cuts the offending hand off--right around the same spot that the arms that washed up on the beach were cut off, as it turns out--and sets about butchering the corpse in a sequence notable for its amazing use of sound effects to make the viewer squirm. The shots are framed so that you see Anthony Wong's torso and upper arms, but not exactly what he's doing to the body (which might have been a budgetary choice but it's also a way to make the killer look even creepier than he already did with his fussy, precise motions as he commits a completely monstrous act).

Chi Hang throws the bones in garbage bags, and tosses the bags in a Dumpster that gets emptied and the contents taken away in a robot-armed truck. He also grinds the meat (with a nauseating closeup of the pale pink shreds of long pork oozing out of the front plate of the grinder, of course) and then there's a montage of Chi Hang making a batch of steamed meat buns using the surprise theme ingredient of "former employee". Those dumplings are a big hit when he serves them the next day, of course, because it's much more horrifying to have people unknowingly enjoy the taste of human meat.

Back at the police station, there's another letter asking about what happened to Cheng Lam and this time Officer Lee hears about it and decides that maybe they should try looking into the case. Bo (dressed like one of the women constantly hanging off of Lee in an attempt to catch the boss's eye) says that the old woman whose arms washed up on the beach lived alone, but that her son-in-law owned the Eight Immortals Restaurant. And right after that gets mentioned, Wong Chi Hang is pasting up a help wanted sign. When his cashier asks what happened to the waiter, she gets told that he moved back to China. The conversation ends when the cops (minus Lee) show up to interrogate Chi Hang about Lam's disappearance.

Chi Hang feeds the cops a line of bullshit about Cheng Lam selling him the restaurant and moving to some place he doesn't know as well as a free order of barbecue pork buns. When Bo mentions the letters from mainland China that have been showing up at the police headquarters the cashier says that plenty of those have been sent to the restaurant. And Chi Hang overhears, which is not good news for the cashier at all. The cops are mollified and go back to the station with boxes of human meat pork buns to share around; later on in the film Officer Lee is going to be really glad that he only likes chicken buns and passed them over.

That night, the cashier says she has to quit to take care of her mother, who has fallen ill. Wong Chi Hang pays her off, asks her to work one more day, and then assaults, rapes and murders her in an excruciating several minute long scene. I'm so glad that the rape and murder aren't played for laughs--when the movie's sense of humor seems so alien to my sensibilities, it's a real concern that the filmmakers might try to wring laughs out of this scene as well. I'm not happy that it's as viscerally disturbing as it is, but it'd be so much worse if I was supposed to be chortling during the series of violations.

The next day, the investigators canvass the neighborhood to get information, and it turns out that Cheng Lam has a brother in jail for murder. Cheng Poon doesn't have anything to do with the case, but the police are pursuing several leads (in a half-assed and lackadaisical manner, to be sure). One of the cops turns up the information that the Eight Immortals Restaurant is still legally owned by Cheng Lam, and while looking for the man it turns out that his children all suddenly stopped going to school but have never officially been removed from the Macau educational system. Officer Lee suspects Chi Hang of something, and decides to accompany his officers to the next interrogation.

There's a blackly comic jump cut to Wong Chi Hang pasting up a CASHIER AND WAITER WANTED sign as the police arrive; when they get there, Lee takes a quick look around upstairs (where the Cheng family used to live), and it turns out that Chi Hang never took the family photos down from the walls when he moved in. He claims that the Cheng family moved to Canada and didn't give him any contact information, but that he'd be happy to forward anything he receives to the police. Lee thanks him for his time and leaves, with even the fuckups he oversees wondering how he could be fooled by the transparent wrongness of what's going on at the restaurant. He replies that he'd rather have Chi Hang content and thinking he's safe than edgy, paranoid and aware that he's being watched. And then has his cops on 24 hour stakeout detail, waiting for Chi Hang to do something that will give them a reason to arrest him.

Which he's going to provide, of course; Wong Chi Hang is not exactly a Napoleon of crime here. He waits until he hears the garbage truck outside to toss a bag with Cheng Lam's passport, ID card and various other personal items in it. The police watch him do this and don't seem to think it might be important to see what he's getting rid of; Lee has to personally tell Bo and Robert to go flag down the garbage truck and search through the detritus to see what they can turn up. Bo finds the bag (and handles it without gloves, getting her fingerprints all over the important evidence inside) and only some very fast driving from Lee's squad gets them to the harbor before Chi Hang can skip town. The scene where he tries to flee is a real departure from Hong Kong police movies--he just runs away in a panic and shoves people. Not a single flying jump kick or bullet storm; he just eventually gets hauled away by Lee and his officers.

The final third of the film is concerned with Lee's attempts to get a confession out of Chi Hang. The narrative stumbles and slows down considerably while Chi Hang refrains from incriminating himself even as Cheng Poon, convicted killer, gets a day pass into his cell as a way to help the cops and get vengeance by beating the living shit out of the murderer. Lee has no interest in losing face by not getting a confession--and the Hong Kong police want Wong Chi Hang for the murder at the very start of the film; if Lee and his squad don't step up their efforts they'll have an arrest but not a conviction on their hands.

It takes days of constant beatings, threats, sleep deprivation and enforced drug withdrawal before Chi Hang finally confesses, and we get a flashback to the night where he killed Cheng Lam, Lam's wife, and five children in a rage after accidentally slashing Lam's young son's throat in a hostage-taking attempt gone bad--this, too, is a scene that belongs in the oeuvre of the Coens. He looks utterly feral and insane in this scene, spattered with blood and hyperventilating as he carries out murder after murder with a massive butcher knife (and then griping that cutting through the victims' bones has notched the blade).

There's a queasy plausibility to the scenes where Lee casually assures a doctor or nurse that torturing a confession out of the killer is just necessary, and asks for their cooperation. I don't know whether or not Macau was a police state in 1993, or when the story's supposed to be taking place in the 80s, or if the whole thing is meant to be below-the-radar criticism of the Chinese government in a place that it would never be expected.

When Chi Hang finally does break and confess, he does it in a strangled whisper that plays in counterpoint to the lurid violence and terror of his killing spree, and he does get a last evil laugh at the expense of his captors when he tells them exactly how he disposed of the bodies. While everyone's distracted by vomiting and panicking he sneaks the pop-top from Lee's soda can into his mouth, and when he's in his cell later he uses the stolen piece of metal to slice his wrist and bleed out before trial; the case is closed, at least, since he confessed but he manages to use his own death as one last middle finger to the forces of law and order.

In the years before Netflix, there were dozens of movies that cult and B fans would hear of but never see--something like The Killer was popular enough to get a Criterion laserdisc release but even global superstars like Jackie Chan couldn't count on their material getting a release in America outside of Chinatown theaters. This is one of the many movies I remember hearing and reading about back when I was dipping my toe into the waters of world cinema but resigned myself to never being able to see. Blockbuster and Hollywood Video didn't have any particular interest in carrying any kind of foreign film, let alone grindhouse horror / police thrillers. And unfortunately those two chains were the gatekeepers for what films would or wouldn't be available for me up until the advent of Netflix--most public libraries do have a fine selection of foreign and art movies on DVD, of course, and I recommend them unreservedly, but this is something too obscure and disreputable for most circulation departments to spend taxpayers' money acquiring.

Thankfully, we live in a time where literally thousands of obscure films are a stream, download or red envelope away. Sure, I could be using my time to familiarize myself with the works of Visconti or Kurosawa, but I've never been someone comfortable with the classics. It might be low culture, vulgar, disdainful, grimy, cheap and shocking, but it's also my flavor of choice when it comes to mass media.

Though I'll be avoiding the barbecue pork buns as well, thank you very much.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Up From the Depths

Yes, I Know:  Undead

No comments:

Post a Comment